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J Jagannath: Good, bad and lovely

The biggest takeaway of the Mumbai Film Festival must be the capacity crowds at the most abstruse movies' screenings

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Every year we put the (MFF) through a sort of Rorschach Test. We attempt the half-futile task of splashing ink (truckloads of movies) on the bright page and try to see a pattern. This year, especially, it’s an even tougher gig, considering how the darlings of every film festival across the globe have been cherry-picked for our perusal. This much diversity and quality has never before touched the MFF.

For starters, the American indie resurgence has been pleasantly surprising. Smashed, a story about how one half of an alcoholic couple goes sober only to turn the things wrong way around, is a devastatingly good film, mainly propelled by the powerhouse performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And, at a time when not many comedies swim against the tide, comes Robot and Frank, in which Frank Langella plays an ex-con with Alzheimer’s who trains his android careworker to help him crack safes.

Barry “Rain Man” Levinson’s found-footage horror flick is saved from the purgatory of cliché thanks to the man’s auteuristic touch, that evokes a cross between Japanese Eiga cinema and The Blair Witch Project. However, what really grabbed us by the scruff of our necks in this self-proclaimed category is Celeste & Jesse Forever. The eponymous couple get divorced, but are yet to come to terms with it — and so continue to cohabit, only to cause more pain to each other. Worry not, there’s a lot of com in this rom. Its immensely likable leads and terrific dialogue studded with pop-culture references makes it the sharpest and funniest indie romance since 500 Days of Summer.

The British presence at MFF this year has been even stronger, both numbers and quality-wise. Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil is a tough but impeccably-shot slice of urban gangsta life. James Marsh’s early-’90s-set thriller Shadow Dancer, in which Andrea Riseborough stars as a Belfast girl torn between IRA family loyalties and an MI5 operative (Clive Owen), is a contender for the best British film of 2012, with Mike Leigh’s pared down but rigorously smart comedy The Angel’s Share.

From elsewhere, there’s Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills, an absorbing tale of how a rank outsider tries to topple the status quo at a remote Romanian monastery. A little further south, Greek new wave cinema has been creating ripples over the last few years; this year that gong goes to Babis Makridis’ gloriously bonkers L, purportedly about a car driver who suddenly develops contempt for the four-wheeler and switches to a motorbike.

The new Bernardo Bertolucci movie (Lo e Te) is muted and monotonous, even though it has a brilliant internal conceit (a 14-year-old spends a week in his parents’ basement without their knowledge, and ends up bonding with his stepsister). On the other hand, Jacques Audiard’s internal conceit falls flat (a double amputee has A-rated sex) in his latest film Rust & Bone, but its droll humour and the impeccable chemistry between the leads (Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard) redeems it. One personal find of the fest has to be the Spanish arthouse movie Aqui y Alli (“Here and There”). After toiling a lot in New York, a middle-aged man returns to his Mexican home to a pregnant wife and two children, only to see how dire the situation at home is. Shot like a docudrama, director Antonio Méndez Esparza coerces the viewer into being a fly-on-the-wall witness to the family’s daily struggle.

There were bound to be a few misfires, too. The most glaring: Cosmopolis and On the Road. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is snail-paced, with Robert Pattinson’s limo-bound billionaire mumbling a series of tedious meditations on money and morality. Clinically shot, but too reverent to Don DeLillo’s rambling prose, it ends up stuck in an existential traffic jam of its own making. As for On the Road, Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel is a major letdown. It’s atmospheric, thanks mainly to the perfectly pitched, jazz-rich score and a decent cast, but is dramatically inert.

The festival did manage to give its publicist enough nightmares to last until the next installment. Many shows had to be cancelled because of the lack of a password for the digital prints; some foreign language movies didn’t have subtitles. That said, the biggest takeaway of the fest must be the capacity crowds at the most abstruse movies’ screenings. Even more gratifying have been the discussions taking place on the fest’s sidelines — for example, a panel that included Ashutosh Gowarikar, Zoya Akhtar and Mahesh Bhatt discussing “where is that film from India which has universal, non-Indian, diverse appeal?”

If Indian cinema, aided by a discerning audience, brings these ideas to fruition, the next might well see a heavier concentration of ink at the section with the alternative Indian cinema.

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